Was the Facebook experiment really wrong?

“Facebook reveals news feed experiment to control emotions” – The Guardian

“Facebook conducted secret psychology experiment on users’ emotions” – The Telegraph

“Facebook Manipulated 689,003 Users’ Emotions For ‘Creepy’ Secret Experiment” – The Huffington Post

We learnt yesterday that in 2012 Facebook, alongside academics from Cornell and the University of California, ran a psychological experiment manipulating some users’ timelines to see what would happen. The results showed that what people read had an impact on their own emotions. An influx of positive stories in a person’s timeline led to an increased likelihood that the user would post positive stories themselves, negative stories led to a higher likelihood of negative posts.

According to the Guardian, the study concluded: “Emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.”

Media uproar

Unsurprisingly, people were unhappy. In the UK, politicians called for an investigation into how “Facebook and others manipulate people’s thoughts in politics and other areas”. The head of Obama’s 2008 online campaign speculated that the “CIA (could) incite revolution in Sudan by pressuring Facebook to promote discontent.” Regardless of political persuasions, the media appeared horrified by the study’s implications. How could we allow a private corporation to get away with the blatant manipulation of people’s emotions? Should anybody be allowed that power? Was this the beginning of a dystopian society where thoughts were manipulated to devastating effect?

Before I go any further, I should explain that I’m not a fan of Facebook. It’s not that I don’t find their service a useful way to keep in contact with friends and family, especially as most of one-side of my family live abroad, but they have a very poor record on data privacy. They continually change their settings to allow people (and companies) access to your personal data by default, rather than as an option. This is not an accident. Your data is valuable and Facebook is beholden to shareholders to make a return on their investment. Yes, users should expect to make some form of payment to use the Facebook service, and access to their data costs them nothing financially, but Facebook should make this clear from the beginning rather than sneaking it through the back door.

Still, in the case of this experiment I am siding slightly with Facebook.

Was it really so bad?

In one respect, yes. There is one thing Facebook did which was very wrong. As James Grimmelmann, professor of law at Maryland University said on his blog, Facebook had failed to gain “informed consent” as defined by the US federal policy for the protection of human subjects. It is illegal to experiment on people without their consent. The press should take Facebook to town for this, not just because it is wrong, but because it is consistent with their behaviour in other areas, including privacy.

However, I am less concerned by the experiment itself. Why? Because as secret experiments go, this one gave us a valuable insight into something very important. Also, despite what I said above, it was being overseen by a third party, and the results were published. If they had wanted to, Facebook could have run this test in-house, kept the information to themselves and used it for whatever purposes they liked. Instead they made it available to all. This should be applauded.

The other point is that the experiment did nothing more than what happens on a daily basis by global media corporations. They feed you a selection of information, portrayed in a certain way to manipulate your emotions and opinions. What is different from a corporation experimenting on their users to understand if they can manipulate emotions to a media corporation selecting which news stories to promote or which slant to put on it to promote the political and financial goals of their owner? Politicians, the very people who want to ‘control’ Facebook and others from manipulating emotions, have been happy for the media to do so on their behalf for years. Perhaps the hysteria is less about the experiment itself and more to do with the fact that people outside the cosy political / media establishment now have the ability to do what they have been doing for years.

The reason I’m happy this experiment took place is that perhaps it will re-open the debate, now with the science to back it up, about just how much the public are being manipulated by the media – not with the purpose of controlling the media, but with the goal of educating the public to not necessarily take everything they read at face value.

Lessons for writers

There is also a lesson here for writers (and no it’s not that it would be a good plot start point). We too manipulate people’s thoughts and opinions and with that power comes responsibilities. I am not saying that we should only write happy, positive messages, but that we should be fully aware of the potential impact of what we write and the messages we convey, whether explicit or implied, before publishing our work.

 

Milestones

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image source: (www.decobike.com)

Being buried in the first edit of my sequel to Second Chance, I’ve missed a couple of important blogging milestones.

Suffolk Scribblings is 1 year old

In fact, Suffolk scribblings is one year and a couple of weeks old (I told you I was a little distracted). In that time the blog has changed from being a creative outlet allowing me to write about things other than my book to being a blog mostly about the writing process with the odd piece about anything else that takes my fancy. It wasn’t planned this way, it just happened. It’s funny how these things creep up on you unnoticed.

12000 Views

Yesterday I had my 12,000th page view. This is 11,997 more than I thought I would ever get (I always knew my mum & dad would have a look, plus maybe some random stranger). Anybody who has written a blog will tell you how nervous they felt pressing publish for the first time. You are nervous on two counts: that you won’t be ridiculed for what you have written, and that this futile act of shouting in the dark will reach the ears of a kindred spirit. Since that first press of a button I’ve had visits from all over the world (97 countries to date) a fact that I find, frankly, mind-blowing. Thank you to everybody who has taken the time to read my blatherings, whether they have been about village life, writing, supporting your fellow indie authors or the ongoing psychological warfare that maintains the flames of love for my wife and soul mate. I appreciate each and every visit.

1000 Comments

By a strange coincidence I also passed the 1000 comments threshold yesterday. Out of all the milestones I’ve achieved, this is the one I find most amazing and satisfying. I never expected to meet people through blogging (I know, I was very naive), let alone that people would have enough interest in what I’d written to interact. The big surprise is that I now think of a number of these people – people I have never met and in some cases have no idea what they look like – as friends. It has further strengthened my faith in humanity.

Sadly, as in life, I’m not the best of people at keeping in touch with those I’ve connected. As the number of blogs I follow has increased (along with writing, twitter and good old-fashioned life commitments) the amount of time I have had to comment and interact has lessened, but it does not mean I don’t read your blogs whenever possible, and feedback when I can. For anybody who has connected to me via this blog, I would like to thank you for your generosity of spirit, your frequent encouragement and the occasional clip around the ear if I take things too far.

The future

All this may sound like I’m building up to a goodbye but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a little behind on my Recommended Reads but I have a number of self-published books waiting to be read on my kindle and I will get back to them as soon as Patrick Rothfuss gets his claws out of my brain. I have a host of blog titles sitting in my drafts folder waiting to be written, plus I will be sharing one or two golden oldies (a year is a long time in digital terms) that some of you may have missed.

So a big thank you once again for all your support over the past year. Long may it continue.

Why self-publishing is the new punk

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Future self-publishers? (image source:ontheshelves.wordpress.com)

 

In mid-1970’s Britain, record companies were king. They controlled their industry. Any artist who wanted a career in music had to have a record contract – major artists on relatively good terms but many of the mid-sized to newer entrants on contracts that would have today’s employment lawyers licking their lips. There were a limited number of radio stations, all of whom relied on the record companies to gain access to artists, and in return the record companies’ product dominated the playlists. If you weren’t linked to a record company, you had no chance.

At the same time, the music itself becoming staid, some would say bloated. Established artists were given a free rein, which for many meant bigger, longer and – you will have to excuse me – just a bit up their own backsides. The pop charts, while containing some classics, were full of formulaic songs with high production values performed by the young and beautiful and written by songwriters in the pay of the studios. Yes, there were some artists pushing at the boundaries and trying new things but these were on the fringes. Profit was king and so record companies played it safe, churning out the same thing, over and over, knowing that it was the most cost-efficient and profitable process. I know that there will be some of you reading this and shouting how dare I, what about artists X, Y or Z. My answer is for you to look back at the charts of any week during 1973 – 1975 and tell me how many songs of true quality it contains.

Then, punk happened. Frustrated at the music on offer, the young rebelled. Advances in technology that allowed home recording for the first time and the kids took full advantage. At the same time a few, pioneering DJ’s were willing to promote their work (because mass distribution was still in the control of the few). The musical landscape changed within a matter of months.

Of course, there was uproar. Record companies and many established artists claimed it was just noise. Some bemoaned the sound quality and the lack of  technical skill of the performers. Small, entrepreneurial record labels sprang up to meet the demand. The energy, passion and self-belief created by this opportunity gave rise, not just the big-selling punk artists still known today, but thousands of musicians who continue to make money out of music through small but loyal followings to this day.

Before you accuse me of having the rose-tinted nostalgia of an old punk, I was five years old when all this happened. But it is clear now, looking back, that punk shook the staid music industry to its core.

Let’s move forward to today. In the place of record companies we have the major publishers. They hate self-published authors and the likes of Amazon even more for introducing the technology to make self-publishing affordable to all. They complain about the quality of self-published works, ignoring the fact that for every Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel there are hundreds of mass-produced celebrity tie-ins and written by numbers romance or thriller novels. Poor quality isn’t just about grammar. The majors also say that self-publishers are driving down prices and that there isn’t the money around to invest in new writers, ignoring the fact that they themselves are happy to profiteer by charging high prices on their vast back-catalogue of work – taking the lion’s share of the profit – whilst at the same time discounting other works whenever they fancy (for example, when Second Chance was published, the top-selling ebook in the UK was 12-years a slave at 99p). The major publishers are not interested in art for art’s sake, they are interested in profit. Any writer who has had their work rejected, not on the quality of writing but on the belief that there is no market or that they don’t have a big enough platform, knows this.

Self-publishing may be bad for the major publishers, but there are two winners in this situation: authors and readers.

Like punk bands before them, authors are no longer reliant on publishers to make their work available. Yes, this means there is poor quality work out there, just as there were hundreds of punk bands who hadn’t a clue and never improved over making a racket. But for every terrible book there are many more that are passable, good, very good and even outstanding. More writers than ever before are able to make a living from doing what they love, and they couldn’t do this if readers weren’t buying their books and happy with the value they receive.

But readers are the real winners here. They now have access to a much broader selection of work than ever before. It’s no surprise that lovers of genre fiction are the happiest. Where once the majority were limited by slim pickings from major publishers, or restricted ideas of what that genre meant – with only the bravest and most committed fans seeking out small and specialist publishers to find something different – suddenly readers have access to a huge variety of genre-mashups. Because just like those punks in the 70’s who mixed ska and punk to form two-tone, or punk and electronica to form new romanticism, authors are experimenting too and finding an audience for their work.  And it’s affordable. Because there are no large overheads, authors are able to make higher profits per sale and customers pay less per book. So customers are able to try new things, like different genres or short story collections or even poetry, and finding they enjoy it.

Sorry, did I day there were two winners in this situation. I forgot one other: publishers.

Because despite all the moaning and groaning, publishers, like their contemporaries in the 1970’s music business who signed up the Clash and the Sex Pistols and turned them into superstars, will use the opportunity to snap up the big-selling Indie authors. Those authors that have large followings and great word-of-mouth success are being approached with generous contracts, allowing them to expand their distribution opportunities, open up new markets in new countries, offer translated work. This is a good deal for the publishers. In the same way they like a celebrity-endorsed product, signing an established indie-author allows them to generate profit from books that have had little to no prior investment.

It’s happening now with superstar authors like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey. Amazon are already snapping up indies, using their data to identify likely candidates just before they gain break out success.  This situation will only increase over time.

So before we moan about the death of the novel, let us instead celebrate the death of the status quo and the explosion of creativity that is the new punk, self-publishing.

So you have finished your first draft…

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As with writing a novel, there is no single correct way to edit your book. If you are working with an agent or publisher, they will help you through the process and give you access to invaluable support from creative editors, copy editors, line editors and the like. Life is not so simple for us self-publishing authors. So, having gone through this process once, I thought I’d share my learnings by explaining the process I will use for the sequel to Second Chance. This doesn’t mean it will be the right process for everybody, but hopefully all of you will see at least one or two things that will be of help.

1 First read through

So you’ve left your manuscript to lie for a few weeks, haven’t you? You haven’t? Then go away and come back in a few weeks.

Stephen King in his book, On Writing, suggests your first act should be to read through your manuscript from start to finish, preferably in one go, to gauge the pace of the story. Well who am I to argue? At this point do not be tempted to start correcting typos or change wording; that comes later. The whole point of this part of the process is to look at your manuscript from the point of view of a reader. It is all about the big things. What works and what doesn’t? Are there sections that bore you or add nothing to the story? Then take out your read pen a strike them through. Are their areas that fly through too quickly, actions taken with no visible explanation or reason? Make notes to broaden these sections out but don’t start making the changes just yet.

Once you’ve done this read through your manuscript again, this time to identify any major errors; plot holes; character’s names, appearance and gender changing unintentionally, or the characters disappearing altogether. Write your notes either in a notebook, as post its, or as I do, on the relevant scene notes in Scrivener. My favourite error from my last book was finding chapters written in present tense instead of past tense like the rest of the manuscript. I have no idea how that happened. At this point don’t forget to add in any notes you made during the first draft – expanding character’s roles, writing out characters altogether, changing locations to fit with later scenes etc.

2 Make the major changes

The next step is to make the changes you identified in step 1. Again, try not to get bogged down in correcting grammatical errors, this is all about getting the structure right.

3 Edit your prose

Now, finally, you can make the corrections you have been itching to change during the first two steps. It is here you smooth your prose, remove stray adjectives, re-phrase poorly structured sentences and, of course, correct any spelling or grammatical errors. My one piece of advice is to edit first at sentence level, then go through again at paragraph level, then once more at scene level. Only then move on to the next scene. The reason I say this is that in my last book I edited only at sentence level, which gave me a series of wonderful sentences but horrible, jarring paragraphs and scenes when I read them back. The major mistake I made was not reading the passages out loud. Doing this not only helps you identify clunky prose and poorly structured sentences, it also helps you catch the many typos that will be hidden in your text.

4 Send to test readers

The purpose of this stage is to sense check the story and characterisation. One of the issues with editing your own work is that you know the story too well. You know the full history behind the story, as well as what is happening but being left unsaid and undiscovered. This makes you blind to any gaps in your manuscript. Another issue is that during the act of writing  your characters have become a part of you. You love or hate your characters because you know who they are and why they are doing what they do, but have you written it down?

You want your test readers to be concentrating on the big things. Ask them not to worry about grammatical errors or typos (though they will). What you want to know is, does the book work? Are there things that are confusing when they aren’t meant to be? Have you given enough information at the right time to make sense? Have you edited out a crucial piece of information? At the character level, do the readers relate to the characters? Do they care what happens to them? What works for them and what doesn’t? All of this information is crucial to improving your manuscript.

5 Adapt based on test reader feedback

For most people, the first reaction when receiving test reader feedback is either that they’re wrong, or that you have written a piece of garbage. Both reactions are normal and also untrue. What you need to remember that your lovely, kind-hearted test readers – who have volunteered to critique your work for free – are desperate for you to produce the best book you can.  Really good test readers give you blunt, honest feedback. They tell you what works and what doesn’t, for them.  Once you recover from the shock, you’ll realise what they say contains truth you have either been hiding from yourself, or too close to the manuscript to see. This is not to say you should accept everything at face value, but you should have a good reason not to. Once you have accepted those points you believe to be right, make the necessary changes to your manuscript.

6 Read through for flow once more

By this point your manuscript may look very different to the first draft with which you started. Now is the time to re-read the whole thing again, just to make sure the changes you made haven’t had a detrimental effect on the flow of your story.

7 Send to Editor

It’s at this point some authors question the need for an editor. But you’ve made all these changes, spent hours polishing your manuscript and now you are going to pay for an editor. Are you crazy? Well, no, is the simple answer.

Everything you have done to date has been to save time and money for when you get the professionals involved. I’ve learnt to my cost that I am not, and never will be, a line editor. I miss things. Lots of things. My grammar is OK but not perfect. I am very poor at when to use hyphens and don’t get me started on semi-colons. I am blind to certain types of typos. If you have been a regular reader of this blog, some of this will come as no surprise, but in acknowledging this weakness I also recognise that I’ve needed to do something about it. That is where the editor comes in. My editor will help correct the many grammatical errors still present in my manuscript at this point, as well as offering suggestions on how to improve my prose. That’s not to say he doesn’t also offer some structural advice, but that is just a bonus over all the other wonderful things he does.

8 Make changes based on Editor’s feedback

Of course, you don’t have to listen to what your editor says, but in my experience you had better have a bloody good reason not to. I can only think of one or two occasions where I’ve ignored my editor’s advice, and both times he was happy with what I had written and had just offered alternative wordings as an option.

9 Send to proofreaders

If you have the resources, it is this stage where you would send your work to a line editor. I don’t have that luxury, but I do have a couple of  reader friends who have eyes like a hawk and suffer severe physical reaction when exposed to typos. You may say why, having used an editor, should you do another round of proofing. This is because despite your best efforts, you have probably added errors while dutifully making changes based on your editor’s feedback. Or your editor could have missed something; they are only human. I skipped this process last time and as I have written before, my book was launched with, what I found later, over 80 typos in place. This does not mean your book will be perfect, but you should do everything in your power to keep the typos to a minimum.

10 Make changes based on your proofreaders feedback and prepare to publish

The final stage! Well, not quite. You still have a cover to get ready, you need to format your manuscript into the various e-reader formats. You have to produce a pdf layout for print. Then there is the pricing to think about, as well as how you are going to market the book, all of which you should have been preparing while writing and editing your book…

So, is there anything you do that I’ve missed, or do you have any other tips that could help other writers?

Meet my main character blog tour

Second Chance

I was recently asked to take part in a “main character blog tour” by Sherri Matthews from A View From My Summer House blog. Well, how could I refuse? In order to join in I need to answer a number of questions regarding a character from a work in progress. So, I would like you to meet one of the main characters from my follow-up to Second Chance. Readers of Second Chance will recognise the name, but the character has a much larger role in the sequel. Anyway, rather than spoil things, let me introduce you to:

1. What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Michael “Mick” O’Driscoll. He is very much a fictional character.

2. When and where is the story set?

The story is set in both the US and the UK of the near future. The ravages of climate change are in the past but the price of overcoming what was known as the Upheaval is still being paid, though not in ways you may expect.

3. What should we know about him/her?

He is known as the King of the Scrambles, an area of the city where the law turns a blind eye to illegality, as long as it doesn’t go too far.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

The brother of a senior government minister is found dead in a seedy hotel in the Scrambles and O’Driscoll finds himself the prime suspect in the following murder investigation, led by Nico Tandelli.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

He wants to become respectable and convert his organisation into a legitimate business. But to control the organisation he needs to be feared, forcing him to act in ways that drive this goal ever further from his grasp.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

No title as yet but it is the sequel to Second Chance, my first novel that you can buy from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

I’m aiming for it to be available in the Autumn this year. I’ll know better how achievable this is after the first edit!